In the early part of the play, deer symbolize innocence, especially Shakuntala’s sheltered innocence, while the pursuit of deer symbolizes the King’s romantic appetites (and the taming of those appetites). The play opens with King Dusyanta recklessly chasing a deer, until an ascetic warns him not to shoot the animal because it belongs to the hermitage, where it’s lovingly tended and protected. Here the deer symbolizes Shakuntala, who’s been tenderly raised within the bounds of the hermitage and isn’t to be aggressively pursued. When, after abandoning the hunt, the King meets and falls in love with Shakuntala, he asks if she will “live forever among these hinds, / Doe-eyed among her beloved does,” suggesting that he wants her to give up her virginal (doe-like) innocence and give herself to him. But the next day, lovesick, the King has completely lost his appetite for the hunt, content that “deer chew the cud in crowded shadows” instead of being the object of pursuit. There is only a single “deer” who interests him now, and he must respect her purity and wait for her to act.
Deer Quotes in Shakuntala
VAIKHANASA. King, this is a hermitage deer. You should not—you must not kill it!
Indeed, indeed, no missile should be shot,
Scorching, like a flame through velvet petals,
This young fawn’s tender head.
Alas, what is the filigree life
In this poor animal’s frame,
Beside the adamantine rain
KING. […] Because I’m so eager to hear about the lives of the virtuous, there is another question I should like to ask.
PRIYAMVADA. Don’t hesitate, my lord—there are no bars to what you may ask an ascetic.
KING. Then tell me this about your friend:
How long will she keep her love-starved hermit vows—
Till she changes them for the marriage kind?
Or will she live forever among these hinds,
Doe-eyed among her beloved does?
KING. Timid fawn—don't worry about your elders! The father of your family knows the law, and he shall find no fault in what you've done. Besides:
You wouldn't be the first royal sage's daughter
To take a prince for love—
And receive her father's blessings later.
SHAKUNTALA. Let me go now. I need to ask my friends’ advice.
KING. Yes. I shall release you—
When, like a bee, I kiss the bud of your unbruised lip
And flood my thirsting mouth with nectar.
[With these words, he tries to raise her face. SHAKUNTALA evades him with a dance]
OFF-STAGE VOICE. Red goose, take leave of your gander. Night is falling!
CHAMBERLAIN [observing the KING]. Whatever the conditions, exceptional beauty always entrances us. Even though wasted with remorse, the king looks wonderful.
Instead of jewels, he wears a single band
Above his left-hand wrist; his lips are cracked
By sighs; brooding all night has drained his eyes
Of lustre; yet, just as grinding reveals
A gem, his austerity lays bare
An inner brilliance and an ideal form.
SAMUMATI [aside, staring at the KING]. I can see why Shakuntala goes on pining for him, even though he rejected and humiliated her.
KING [pacing about slowly, deep in thought].
Useless heart—buried in sleep
When my doe-eyed girl
Tried to wake it.
Now it beats in pain
To each pang of remorse,
And shall never sleep again.